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Infinity, Eternity, & Immortality in Dogen’s

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 by Ted Biringer

Infinity, Eternity, & Immortality in Dogen’s Existence-Time

When the abstract speculator posits a gap between existence and experience, they simultaneously divide existence from time. As the Zen practitioner perceives existence (sees what they are seeing), so they also exist in time. Dogen, who consistently maintains the Mahayana tenet that all dharmas are mind, frequently reminds us that we only experience (perceive) real thoughts and things at specific places (of existence) and definite moments (of time).

As “time” is inherent to all experiences, “place” (or space) is inherent to all existences. This is a principle that corresponds to Dogen’s refrain about the unity of “true form” and “true nature.” For Dogen, every particular expression of Buddha nature is a manifestation of existence-and-experience, thus of existence-and-time. More specifically every dharma (thing, being, instance, etc.) is a particular manifestation of existence-time (uji), not existence “plus” time, but a singular unit of existence-time. Here we is where we encounter Dogen’s view of “eternity.”

Dogen, like all Mahayanists, firmly denied the existence of any kind of an eternal, unchanging self. One of the first laws of Buddhism is that all things are impermanent. While this assertion usually ends right there, Dogen urged us to look deeper and ask, what then, is impermanence? To clarify this, consider these words from the important Bussho fascicle of Shobogenzo:

What is constantly saintly is impermanent and what is constantly ordinary is impermanent. The view that those who are just ordinary people and not saintly ones, and thus must lack Buddha Nature, is a foolish opinion held by some folks who are small-minded; such a view constitutes a narrow perspective which their intellect has conjectured. For the small-minded, ‘Buddha’ is a body and ‘Nature’ is its functioning, which is the very reason why the Sixth Ancestor said, “What is impermanent is, of course, Buddha Nature.”

What seems constant has simply not yet undergone change. ‘Not yet undergone change’ means that, even though we may shift our perspective to our subjective self or shift it to the objective, outer world, in both cases there are no signs of change to be found. In that sense, it is constant. As a consequence, grasses and trees, as well as thickets and forests, are impermanent and, accordingly, they are Buddha Nature. It is the same with the human body and mind, both of which are impermanent and, accordingly, they are Buddha Nature. The mountains and rivers in the various lands are impermanent, so, accordingly, they are Buddha Nature. Supreme, fully perfected enlightenment is Buddha Nature, and hence it is impermanent. The Buddha’s great entry into nirvana was impermanent, and hence it is Buddha Nature.
Shobogenzo, Bussho, Hubert Nearman

Dogen’s explanation of the meaning of “constant” (eternal, unchanging, non-changing) is elucidated by Hee-Jin Kim in his Flowers of Emptiness as follows:

That is, permanence means the steadfast quality of the Buddha-nature which exerts itself totally and drops itself off completely in each and every situation. In this respect, the impermanent is permanent, the permanent is impermanent.
Hee-Jin Kim, Flowers of Emptiness, p.91

Eternity (constancy, permanence) for Dogen is not unending time; eternity is only and always “now.” This is not the same “now” that is professed by new-age philosophers, nor is it the now of the “present” in the categories of “past, present, and future,” this now is the eternal itself in which is contained the entirety of the past, present, and future. Nor is it the “eternal self” that is posited by some naturalists, like the Shrenikans (a school of naturalism in India), which is imagined as a self (and, or a universe) of symmetrically organized unchanging perfection, or undifferentiated oneness. As is clear from Dogen’s refutations of such notions, such a self would not be eternal at all; it would only be a static (and stagnant) existence, conceptually cut-off from time, which, in Dogen’s Zen would not qualify as a real existence at all.

As the inevitable result of speculatively abstracting “existence” from existence-time, “time” too loses its significance by becoming antithetical to existence. As an “eternal self” would be nothing more than a stagnant petrifaction in the absence of time, so time in the absence of existence would be an unbounded, unimaginable obscurity whose only possible symbols would be impenetrable darkness and insanity. Such abstract notions of time have led to equally abstract, and often horrific, notions and interpretations of karma and causality that are on a par with the darkest fatalistic visions of determinism and predestination.

The eternity seen through the Dharma-eye, on the other hand, reveals that real time is only and always clearly and distinctly perceptible. When Dogen delineates time in general aspects, like “past, present, or future,” we need to remember his position regarding “generalization” (i.e. “general dharmas” do not exist). Failing this, we might, for example, try to imagine some time “after” the future or “before” the past – all such notions amount to abstract conceptualization which has no significance to practice-enlightenment here and now. Such theorizing only leads to biases and ungrounded assumptions. Dogen’s explanation about the significance of the Buddhist doctrine that “form is emptiness” also applies to time and eternity.

Although in the statement, “Material form is the same as being empty,” material form is not being forced into becoming empty, and emptiness is not being split up to manufacture material form, the ‘being devoid’ of which he spoke is that of ‘being devoid is what emptiness means’. The ‘being devoid’ of ‘being devoid is what emptiness means’ is synonymous with Master Sekisō Keisho’s calling it “a stone in space.” So, this is how the Fourth and Fifth Ancestors inquired into and talked about the non-possessing of Buddha Nature, about the emptiness of Buddha Nature, and about the existence of Buddha Nature.
Shobogenzo, Bussho, Hubert Nearman

That the “past,” for instance, is “eternal,” does not mean that past dharmas, like “last night’s moon,” or “the ‘I’ that crossed mountains yesterday,” have been transformed, blended, or merged into eternity, nor was the eternal somehow divided up, or broken into pieces like “last night’s moon,” or “the ‘I’ that crossed mountains yesterday.” In other words, last night’s moon, and the “I” that crossed mountains yesterday, are eternity itself; last night’s moon is not tonight’s moon, each are particular instances of the whole of eternity itself, not just “bits” or “pieces” of eternity. Here, eternity appears as last night’s moon, there, eternity appears as Dogen departing Japan for China. When Dogen is illumined, the moon is darkened, when the moon is illumined, Dogen is darkened.

In Shobogenzo, Uji, Dogen defines uji (existence-time) as meaning “that time is unmistakably ‘existence’ and ‘existence’ is invariably ‘time’” (Kim, Flowers of Emptiness, p.224). Note the implication of the term “invariably” here in connection with Dogen’s elucidation of “constancy” mentioned a moment ago. For Dogen, each dharma (thing, being, instant, etc.) is, as it is, the whole of eternity.

“…we should see that every event, every thing in this entire world is a time.”
Shobogenzo, Uji, Hee-Jin Kim, Flowers of Emptiness, p.224-225

The “every event” and “every thing” that are considered by Dogen as “a” time, are not general events, or general things, they are actual, specific dharmas – the very events and things manifesting before us at this present, eternal moment. Here we see how the “existence” of myriad dharmas and the ceaselessly (constant) “experience” of the self (the true person) are two perspectives of a unified, dynamically entangled, actualization of the universe (genjokoan); the one perspective is the “eternal,” the other perspective is the “infinite.” Thus:

The self arrays itself and sees itself in array. This is the principle of the self being time.

We should learn that, because of this principle, myriad phenomena and countless things exist throughout the entire earth, and that each and every particularity, be it of a thing or of phenomenon, exists as the entire earth. Such a consideration is the beginning of training…

Because there is no other time than this very moment, “existence-time” is always entire time.
Shobogenzo, Uji, Hee-Jin Kim, Flowers of Emptiness, p.225

Dogen tells us that the “ordinary (unawakened) person,” being “untutored in the Buddha-dharma continues to have his/her own view of time,” which he sums up as, “The mountains and rivers [I experienced in the past] are as separate from me as heaven from earth” (Kim, Flowers of Emptiness, p.225).

Such views arise from abstract theories based on speculations of “eternity” as consisting of “never-ending” time, and equally speculative notions of “infinity” as a “never-ending” number of “things,” “space,” or “events.” Attaining the goal of Buddhism (liberation, nirvana, Buddhahood, etc.) is, in Dogen’s teachings, contingent on overcoming these narrow, limiting viewpoints, by learning, practicing, and verifying the vision depicted by the Buddha Dharma, which “is the beginning of training.”

While the self of the “ordinary person,” being a false construction to begin with, dies with the present body-mind, the self of the “Buddha ancestor” (Zen practitioner), being the one true person to begin with, survives as the entirety of the universe (koan) that he or she has actualized (made actual, expressed, manifested). This means, according to Dogen, that all expressions of truth, of genuine wisdom, and real compassion are eternal, while all falsity of views, imitative or automatic (routine, unthinking) activity, and abstract notions vanish, or rather, are never really actualized.

As experience is existence, the measure of which each individual is eternal is the measure of which they authentically experience eternity. Thus, in Dogen’s view, immortality is not envisioned as the endurance, or the extinguishment, of the individual in an undifferentiated oneness, a divine essence, life force, or any other kind of homogenized energy, nature, or being. Eternity, or the eternal, for Dogen, only and always refers to actual, specific, particular expressions of truth.

As “time,” for Dogen always means existence-time (uji), “existence” too, is always existence-time; and as time is always specific, existence is always particular and definite also.

The Face-to-Face Transmission of the great Full Enlightenment and the Mind seal will involve a particular moment in a definite place.
Shobogenzo, Menju, Hubert Nearman

Now “place” indicates the fact that existent things (real dharmas) occupy specific locations, which means that things are forms or bodies in space. That is, the “existence” of existence-time means “bodily existence in space.” The “Dharma-position” occupied by each and every real dharma is a specific existence-time. All particular things, from mountains and rivers to hallucinations and fleeting thoughts are dharmas (things, beings, events) that occupy specific Dharma-positions. That lamp, this tea, that birdsong and every other specific dharma is, as it is, the whole of existence-time coming forth as this or that particular dharma. One actual chirp of a cricket, for example, is a specific coordinate (Dharma-position) of the whole of space-time. To hear that particular chirp with the “whole body-mind” (in zazen) is to “experience” the whole of existence-time, and is to experience the true person (our own true self) – we illumine the Buddha mind by hearing that chirp, while simultaneously that chirp advances and confirms us (our true self). There are no dharma experiences apart from the body-mind, and there is no body-mind apart from dharma experiences. Thus, in Dogen’s Buddha Dharma:

In the truth of Buddha and in the house of Buddha, we just illuminate the mind by seeing forms and realize the truth by hearing sounds; there is nothing else at all. A state that is like this, being already in the Buddha’s truth, should preach, “To those who must be saved through this body, I will manifest at once this body and preach the Dharma.” Truly, there is no preaching of Dharma without manifestation of the body, and there can be no salvation that is not the preaching of Dharma.
Himitsu-shōbōgenzō (Secret Shōbōgenzō), Butsu-kōjō-no-ji, Gudo Nishijima & Mike (Chodo) Cross

Thus, in Dogen’s view of the nonduality of existence and time, we find that the principles concerning time (and eternity) also apply to existence (and infinity). When we speculate on abstract notions of time, time seems to extend from an unknowable beginning to an unknowable future. Likewise, our view of existence (or space) stretches outward around us to an unbounded horizon. Thus, to the “ordinary person,” who cuts time and existence into two, both appear vague, obscure, and mysterious.

The fact that to the unawakened eye, the “infinity of existence” and the “eternity of time,” appear indefinite, has led to numerous ill-conceived “explanations” of reality, Buddha nature, Zen, enlightenment, true nature, etc. as being “unexplainable” (incommunicable, indescribable, ineffable, and other negative terms). According to Dogen, however, seen through the Dharma-eye, the infinite is never indefinite, the eternal never concealed. Infinity and eternity, being two aspects of the unity of existence-time is “infinitely-eternal” and therefore, the eternal experience (time) of infinite space (existence) is always and only particular, distinct, specific, and definite.